Religious liberty: Protecting conduct rooted in conviction

Pope Francis recently said that religious liberty is talked about more than it is proactively protected. And he is right. Religious liberty is increasingly given lip service, but in practice it keeps shrinking.

In some countries, such as Sudan and North Korea, Christians are actively persecuted and unable to worship publicly. In others, Christians are excluded from public life, and may not openly evangelize.

For many Americans, though, the issue seems distant and abstract, and one that manifests itself in other places without direct impact on our lives. We think that religious liberty is not threatened in the United States and other Western countries because we are free to worship as we please.

But living one’s faith is more than just the ability to believe certain things and worship within the four walls of a church building. It is sharing that faith with others in public prayer, in charitable works, in social and political action, and in the cultural sphere.

In other words, living the faith entails conduct rooted in conviction.

Unfortunately, there are many who wish to change the conduct of religious people because they do not like their convictions. The conduct and beliefs of religious people, particularly orthodox Christians, are increasingly seen as an impediment to the happiness of individuals and harmful to society.

Subtle and not-so-subtle steps are being taken by many to marginalize people of faith and build a wall between them and the rest of society. That is why promoting and defending religious liberty is the Catholic Church’s number one public policy priority both in the United States and around the world.

Threatened at home

In the United States, Christians are being excluded from public grants and charitable services because they hold beliefs about marriage and human sexuality that are contrary to current cultural fads.

For example, after years of excellent performance by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services (MRS) in administering contract services for victims of human trafficking, the federal government changed its contract specifications to require MRS to provide or refer for contraceptive and abortion services that violate the universal moral law.

The cities of Boston and San Francisco, the District of Columbia, and the State of Illinois have driven local Catholic Charities out of the business of providing adoption or foster care services — by revoking their licenses, by ending their government contracts, or both — because those charities refused to place children with same-sex couples or unmarried opposite-sex couples who co-habit.

Several states have recently passed laws that forbid what they deem as the “harboring” of undocumented immigrants — what the Church deems as basic Christian charity and pastoral care to these immigrants.

New York City adopted a policy that barred the Bronx Household of Faith and other churches from renting public schools on weekends for worship services, even though non-religious groups could rent the same schools for many other uses.

These are just a few examples in the United States where our laws and institutions fail to protect, or even attack, conduct rooted in conviction.

But the threat to religious freedom is larger than any single case or issue, and has its roots in secularism in our culture — a secularism that wishes to transform Jefferson’s “wall of separation” between church and state into one that separates people of faith and moral deliberation from social, cultural and political life.

Why it matters to you

As this column has noted many times, religion — that is, conduct rooted in conviction — has always played a vital role in fostering the virtue and social capital necessary to preserve a free society and promote the common good. Protecting religion’s important role is why it is the “first freedom” enumerated in the Bill of Rights.

But even if one fails to find these arguments compelling, and instead looks for the direct personal impact, he or she should think of the matter this way: When the Little Sisters of the Poor leave the United States because they will not comply with the HHS mandate, who is going to take their place?

What will happen when Catholic schools close or must raise tuition because of their refusal to comply with expensive ideological mandates, such as the so-called “Safe and Supportive Schools Act” introduced in the Minnesota Legislature this year? Who is going to pick up the bill for the surge of students into the public school system? Taxpayers?

What happens when hospitals and other charities shutter their services, or when businesses close? What of the employees and those they serve? What about non-profits and other associations prevented from living their mission?

The answer is simple: When religious liberty is attacked, we are all impacted and the common good suffers.

How to take action

The bishops can and have sounded the alarm through the Fortnight for Freedom and other initiatives, but it is up to the laity to act. We Catholics must have courage in our convictions and stand for religious liberty for ourselves and all people of good will.

To learn more about the threats to religious liberty at home and abroad, visit informative websites such as and

Participate in prayer efforts for religious liberty such as the June 29 Mass and Holy Hour at the Cathedral.

Send your congresspersons postcards asking them to protect conscience rights and religious liberty. Encourage your state elected officials to promote religious liberty in contexts as diverse as social services, health care, public and private schools, employment, occupational licensing and business.

In this great collaborative effort, we will preserve the freedom of the Church, the dignity of every human person and America’s great heritage of religious liberty.

Adkins is executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.

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